Sunday, July 31, 2005

Real-Life Emergency: Search and Rescue

As most of you know, I'm a pilot and if you've read my profile, you also know that I'm a lieutenant in the Civil Air Patrol, the auxillary of the U.S. Air Force. One of our primary missions is search and rescue, both of missing aircraft and of missing persons, such as hikers who get lost in the desert. We have other missions (disaster surveillance and relief, blood transport, counter-drug missions, and homeland security missions, among others), but our primary reason for existence is search and rescue. It's a mission we hope we don't have to perform, but one for which we train for ceaselessly (in fact, there was a training exercise scheduled this weekend that was cancelled due to weather). After the hurricanes in Florida last year, it was the Civil Air Patrol who surveyed the damage, pointed rescuers to those in trouble, and shuttled blood and supplies into areas that couldn't be reached from the ground. We're just average Joes and Janes. But we've got an important job.

Yesterday afternoon around 1:30 PM local time we received a "mayday" call from a small aircraft, followed by its Emergency Locator Transmitter (ELT) beacon shortly thereafter. This isn't a drill. Right now there is a plane down in the desert somewhere in the area of Casa Grande, AZ, so most of the CAP units in the area have been activated. It's monsoon season here in Arizona, though. Last night we had a huge and violent thunderstorm roll into the area, which grounded all of our aircraft. We resumed the search at 7:00 AM this morning, but so far haven't found the aircraft or its pilot. We don't know what kind of aircraft or how many people were on board, nor do we even know if they survived the crash. What we do know is that they spent last night in a ferocious thunderstorm, probably injured. With each hour the odds of survival start to go down. We are literally racing against the clock. If the aircraft was flying VFR (visual flight rules), then he was not required to file a flight plan, so we have nothing more than the ELT signal to go on. Unfortunately, the ELT batteries won't last forever. The fact that we haven't heard anything on the radio since the mayday call means that either the aircraft communication system is non-functional -- or there's no one on board able to operate it. Hopefully, if the pilot and passengers (if any) survived the crash, then they stayed with the aircraft. If it is reasonably intact, it can provide some shelter. In a way, the storms may help, since most survivors of small plane crashes die from exposure rather than their injuries. The rain brought the temperature down fromt he 120 F it has been and may also give them some water. Not only that, though, a human is almost impossible to spot from 500'. Staying with the aircraft (or car, if you become lost on the ground), dramatically improves your chances of being found. The pilot had time to send out a mayday, so engine failure seems likely. We all train to make power-off emergency landings, and the desert out near Casa Grande is nice and flat. They've got a chance. But it's been 24 hours since the crash now. We need to find them soon. The hardest thing for SAR pilots to deal with is to learn that victims survived the crash, but died a few hours later. They could have been saved if we were just a bit faster.

The biggest problem we are running into is lack of staff. CAP is an all-volunteer organization. Our members donate their time and effort to learn how to perform our various missions. You don't have to be a pilot -- in fact, we are most desperate for mission base teams, communications operators, and visual scanners to fly on board our search craft. We need these much more than we need pilots, actually, although we can always use more. We also need ground teams to operate direction finding equipment and get help to the survivors. CAP has an active cadet program as well, for kids aged 12-18. The cadets learn about aerospace and related fields, but they can also become qualified in some areas of emergency services.

We need your help. We don't need your money. We don't need donations. We need people who want to make a difference in the community. We need people who want to save lives. I hope you'll consider contacting your local Civil Air Patrol squadron and find out how you can get involved. You can go to the national CAP home page,, and find out where to go. Please feel free to ask me any questions as well.

The pilot and passengers on this aircraft may not make it. With more personnel, we could find them a lot faster. We need you.

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